Calculators or No Calculators: That is the Question

I was recently contacted by an instructional coach from a school district where I work regularly.  She and her teachers were working on math units aligned to common core.  They were trying to determine whether students should be allowed to use calculators during instruction and whether they would be allowed to use them on the new state assessments.

Her question was a valid one in light of Common Core Mathematical Practice Standard#5: Using Appropriate Tools Strategically.  As math educators we want students to determine when they need a tool to solve math problems and which tool is best suited to the task.  If the focus of instruction is computation or basic level fact knowledge, then a calculator would not be warrented but when students are engaged in higher level thinking and problem solving, where the goal is not about assessing computation, then a calculator might be an appropriate tool.

Shortly after this coach’s inquiry, I received an update from Education Weekly on this very subject.  The two consortia involved in writing the next generation of math assessments, PARCC and SBAC, released their policies on calculator usage.  “Policies emerging from the two state consortia developing common-core assessments would prohibit most students from using calculators on the grades 3-5 tests, for example. At grades 6 and above, they call for calculator “on” and “off” sections and set restrictions on what functionality is allowed. (Both consortia will provide online calculators for the computer-based tests.) Those rules, especially in today’s high-stakes-testing environment, are sure to influence regular classroom use of calculators, from the elementary ban to the ways increasingly sophisticated calculator use is assumed at the secondary level, many experts say.”

Unfortunately, some teachers may see this as a ban on calculators entirely because we have been conditioned to “teach to the test” and if calculators won’t be used on the assessment, then they won’t be used at all.  “It’s absolutely true that kids need to be able to compute without calculators, … but that’s only part of what they need,” said Cathy Seeley, a senior fellow emeritus at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “To prohibit them [on the exams] in grades 3-5 even when there are very useful ways students would use them to get to higher-level thinking” is a mistake. “It constrains the depth of the [test] problems you provide.”

I believe the thing to keep in mind goes back to that 5th Mathematical Practice Standard.  For students who are still working to build competency with number sense and fluency with facts, calculators are not an appropriate tool.  These students do not have the underlying skills that would inform them as to reasonableness of answers when using a calculator.  However, when these skills are intact and teachers choose to involve students in deeper levels of problem solving and critical thinking, calculators might be a logical choice.

Use the following link to view the entire article from Education Weekly:

Hi, I am Renee' Smith and I began teaching math in, of all places, a maximum security prison. “I was 21 years old and 99 lbs. soaking wet. Some of my students were convicted murderers and as scary as it sounds, it was incredibly sad. Many of those men had failed in the school system and then turned to crime.” That early experience with public school dropouts, cemented my resolve to help future students understand and succeed in the area of mathematics. To that end I dedicated 16 years to the classroom, teaching 5th grade math through algebra. After obtaining my Masters in Education from Baker University, I joined the ESSDACK team in 2007. I have presented at the local, state, and national levels but my most worthwhile experience at ESSDACK has been working to take the fear out of math for teachers and students alike. Although my primary focus has been providing professional development in mathematics, I also devote time to podcasting and creating materials for teachers to use in their classrooms. My podcasts include, By the Numbers, Just Desserts and Math Snacks. Working at ESSDACK has provided me the opportunity to do many of the things I love. “I have the time to research current educational practices, I get to be creative, collaborative, and I meet tons of new people."

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